Hi, my name is Lisa. I’m 35 years old, and I currently live with the mental health conditions of clinical depression, anxiety, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (also known as ADHD).
I was the youngest of eight siblings from a blended family, and the only child of my mother and father together. I was fortunate that I was able to experience both growing up with siblings and later growing up as if an only child, because all of my siblings were much older than me and moved out of the house by the time I was ten.
Although I wasn’t diagnosed with depression until I was 18, I felt the effects of it from a young age. I often recall a very vivid memory of being a kid, around 6 or 7, sitting at my Little Tykes table coloring and having this overwhelming sense of sadness for no apparent reason. So, while I had two loving parents and a relatively happy childhood and upbringing, with plenty of friends and happy memories, that feeling of sadness and emptiness would come and go, but definitely became more prominent in my teens.
My dad was a doctor, and I remember that when I was sixteen I asked my dad if he thought I had depression or if I was just a moody teen, and he said probably both. There was one obvious pattern that developed during high school: when my mental health was good, I had great grades, and when it wasn’t, I would often be close to failing all of my classes. I was often disciplined by my parents when my grades were poor, and my dad would comment that he could accept bad grades if I were dumb, but I wasn’t, and we knew I could do better.
It wasn’t until my senior year in high school, when my parents found me on the floor of my room crying uncontrollably, that they sent me to see a psychiatrist. It was then that I was first diagnosed with clinical depression. While my first experience with therapy and medication was overall positive and productive, it was not met without resistance and a little denial from me. I remember riding home in the car with my parents after my initial consultation and telling them that I didn’t need therapy, that I was okay, and that it was just normal teen stuff I was upset about – you know – like stress from graduating that year, worries about college and the future, troubles with a boyfriend, etc. I told them that they should save their money because therapy was for people who were suicidal and I wasn’t that, so I didn’t need it. My dad adamantly responded, “No! You are not okay and you are going!” That was the first time, but definitely not the last, that someone had to convince me that I deserved to take up space to get the help I needed.
My dad, who was my mentor and best friend growing up, passed away during my freshman year in college when I was 19. The same year that my dad died, I experienced my first significant break up with my high school boyfriend, who I considered to be my first true love. From that point on, those two losses were intrinsically linked in my psyche. The loss, grief, and trauma of those two combined experiences definitely impacted and exacerbated my mental health conditions from that point on.
Needless to say, I dropped out of college for a year after my dad died and moved back in with my mom to keep her company and to figure out what I was doing with my life. However, that did not go smoothly, and I instead went down an insidious path of unhealthy coping mechanisms in an attempt to deal with my grief, including substance abuse, hypersexuality, and anorexia. During that summer after my dad died, I experienced an overdose of substances and was hospitalized. I was kept under strict supervision, and my incident was labeled as a suicide attempt, though I did not consider it to be one. I was not trying to end my life, but simply self-medicating to numb my pain, and I took it too far. That was definitely a sobering experience for me, and definitely a wake-up call to get my life back together. One of my brothers, who had noticed my floundering and recognized the downward spiral I was in, offered to have me move in with him and his wife and kids as an au pair, and suggested I go to community college while I figure out my next steps. So that’s exactly what I did.
I went back to school, all the while still battling depression, receiving an additional diagnosis of clinical anxiety, struggling with bouts of suicidal ideation, and still engaging in unhelpful, destructive coping mechanisms. During college, I went to university counseling services and began working with a campus psychologist named Oscar, who became my counselor for five consecutive years, through both college and grad school. I’ll never forget how during my first appointment with him, while in crisis mode, he stopped me and said, “You sound like a broken record. Listen to yourself. You are so mean to yourself!”
During my college career, my depression and anxiety often left me paralyzed and feeling incapable of accomplishing anything, big or small. This in turn produced feelings of overwhelming guilt, shame, and self-hatred. But working with Oscar during this time helped me realize my own potential and capability, and to recognize my own self-worth. So, with his help and a lot of self-work, I was able to graduate college with a 3.7 GPA, as well as complete a master’s program with a final GPA of 3.9. I really owe a lot of my academic success, confidence, and sense of self-worth to Oscar, who I truly believe helped save my life.
I went on to successfully work in my field for the next decade, holding positions such as adjunct professor at my alma mater and research project manager at a reputable research institute. However, that decade was not without its own unique struggles. In my thirties, I was diagnosed with adult-ADHD. Shortly after that diagnosis, I remember reading an article about how common it was for women to not be diagnosed with ADHD until their late twenties and early thirties, because growing up, girls are less likely to show symptoms of hyper-activity, are often more organized, and often make good grades in school despite their condition, so it can easily go undetected. This is especially true for women who have comorbid, or co-existing, conditions of depression and anxiety, because the symptoms of those three conditions are often so similar.
After being diagnosed with ADHD, it started to make sense why I often had no problem starting tasks or passion projects, but a lot of trouble finishing them, or starting too many projects at once and getting overwhelmed and resigning. I felt angry that I hadn’t been given this diagnosis sooner. I thought about how different my life could have been if my ADHD had been treated earlier in life, and how much more I could have accomplished. In my case, though, it’s still up for debate whether my ADHD exacerbates my depression and anxiety, or vice versa.
In early 2019, I experienced a mental health crisis that led to a two-month medical leave of absence from my work, and admission into multiple partial psychiatric hospitalization programs, which helped me heal from unresolved traumas that I had compartmentalized and ignored through the years. This much-needed sabbatical was very therapeutic for me, and I left those programs having gained tremendous insight, a new outlook on life, and a new set of tools in my tool-kit of healthy coping mechanisms.
However, the next year, in early 2020, due to personal life circumstances, I lost my job, and while that was a very traumatic and unfortunate experience for me, I had the tools I needed to weather that storm, and a lot of good came out of it. I became more resilient. I re-evaluated my career goals, life path, and life’s purpose. I realized that I was ready to broaden my horizons and explore new career paths, including considering going back to school to become a therapist. The last couple of years, I have been in a variety of intensive therapy programs, and have become inspired to help others the way I had been helped. This desire is what led me to volunteer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and gain experience in the field of mental health care.
For the last year, since becoming unemployed and while considering next steps, I have volunteered for various NAMI programs. The most rewarding effort I’ve participated in thus far has been becoming a trained and certified instructor for NAMI’s “Peer-to-Peer” class program, which is taught by NAMI volunteers like myself who live with mental health conditions. This class is designed to educate those who live with mental health conditions on how to better manage their conditions, raise awareness for their conditions, communicate better with others, advocate for themselves, and create a better quality of life for themselves. Being able to help others the way I have been helped has been very rewarding. Volunteering of any kind is definitely a returning gift, to say the least, and volunteering for NAMI has significantly impacted my mental health for the better.
Instead of viewing my job loss as a failure, I’ve seen it as an opportunity to explore and aim for new goals. When I was a senior in high school, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. However, once I went to college, things started to get real. There were a lot of ups and downs, a lot of changes to my majors and minors, multiple sabbaticals from school, and many successes and failures in my career. But one thing I have learned from all of this is that life doesn’t stop when you’re 18, 21, 25, 30… I’m 35 now and I’m still learning and exploring what I want to be when I grow up, and that’s okay. My point is to not become fixated on just one life goal, but to be aware that you can have more than one, you can explore and work toward multiple life goals, and you can even let go of some and replace them with new ones. You can change your mind, you can fail, and you can try again. What matters is that you learn from those shortcomings, you never stop trying, you never lose hope that tomorrow is a new day, and you never forget that you matter and can make a difference in this world.
In sum, since I was 18, I’ve had significant ups and downs. I’ve been in and out of therapy, and I’ve had some really helpful psychiatrists and therapists, some not so helpful as others. I’ve been exposed to different types of mental health treatment, such as the partial hospitalization programs I mentioned earlier, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (also known as DBT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (also known as CBT, or individual talk therapy), and group therapy. I’ve been prescribed a plethora of different psychiatric medications, and it definitely took time to find the right combination and balance of treatment for me, but once I did, I’ve been able to experience a better quality of life for myself.
I’m happy to say that as of late, I’ve been doing pretty well with my mental health. Since the pandemic, I’ve somehow been feeling pretty emotionally and mentally stable and balanced overall, keeping an attitude of gratitude, and taking advantage of the resources provided to me to help manage my conditions. I think the pandemic has helped me recognize what I do have in my life, rather than what I lack. I’m extremely grateful for my existing support systems: my friends, family, significant other, pets, and NAMI family. I am aware, though, that especially with mental health, healing is not linear, and things might not always be as smooth sailing for me as they are at the moment, but I feel confident that I’ll have what I need to get through whatever comes.